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A Collaborative Q&A Session with Inglese Bimbi - Three Key Takeaways for Bilingual Families

Hello everyone! Sorry it’s been a while since my last post, but today I have something really exciting to talk to you all about.

About a month ago, Sara – the founder of Inglese Bimbi and a mother of bilingual children herself who is helping other families do the same – got in touch with me after reading my book, asking me if I’d be interested in joining her and a group of parents for a Q&A session. Having never done this sort of thing before, I wasn’t too sure if I was up to the challenge. But ultimately, I thought this would be an amazing opportunity to speak to other like-minded parents and share my experience. So, I said yes!

The session went ahead as scheduled yesterday evening. I had the privilege of speaking to a group of extremely dedicated Italian parents who are trying to raise their children to be bilingual in English and Italian, despite not being native speakers of English themselves. I was truly in awe of these parents’ commitment and dedication. In the hour-long session (well, it actually ran over for 15 minutes, as we all had so much to talk about!), the parents, Sara and I discussed our experiences of raising bilingual (or, in my case, trilingual) children and the various challenges we faced. To my surprise and delight, many of these parents had already purchased and read my book (a big thanks to Sara for recommending the book to them!), and we discussed ways to put into practice some of the techniques I mentioned in the book. It was a truly fruitful and rewarding session, and I thought I’d write this blog post to share with you THREE key takeaways from our discussion.

Takeaway Number One: It is Definitely Possible to Raise Bilingual Kids as a Non-Native Speaker of the Target Language

I was surprised to learn that all the parents who attended the session are native Italian speakers who speak English as a second language. Their situation is very different from that which faces most bilingual/ multilingual families in the UK, who typically want to pass on their mother tongues to their children. In contrast, these Italian parents are trying to raise their children to speak English from a young age to give them the advantage of being able to communicate with the wider world. According to these parents, English is not widely spoken in their country, and there’s a general perception that the teaching of English in mainstream schools is somewhat inadequate. Many of these parents are concerned about their own proficiency in English and wanted some reassurance as well as practical advice.

As I explained in my book, I firmly believe that it is possible to raise your children to be bilingual as non-native speakers, which perhaps goes against the grain of conventional wisdom and the advice of many experts. In my book, I cited the example of an English dad who is successfully raising his child to speak Mandarin despite being a non-native Mandarin speaker himself. His secret? The OPOL (One Parent, One Language) method, a ton of dedication, and a Chinese-speaking after-school nanny for his child. In contrast, I know so many parents who “fail” to (I put the word “fail” in quotation marks, because I’m not implying that this is a “failure” on the parents’ part; for all I know, raising bilingual kids may not be important to them!) pass on their mother tongue to their child. This, to me, clearly suggests that the most important thing to successfully raising bilingual children is DEDICATION and CONSISTENCY, regardless of what your mother tongue is.

Several parents also brought up the issue of pronunciation and accent in the context of raising your child to be bilingual as a non-native speaker. Both Sara and I were of the opinion that pronunciation and accent are of far less importance than fluency and the ability to communicate. Because, at the most basic level, language is fundamentally a tool for communication. On this basis, my advice would be to focus on fluency while ensuring that your child’s pronunciation is comprehensible to others.

Takeaway Number Two: The Importance of Creating an Immersive Environment in Whatever Way Possible (foreign travel; meetups with other families; au pair; online lessons)

One other topic that came up in the session was the importance of creating an immersive linguistic environment when raising a child to be bilingual. Children (and indeed, adults) need a massive amount of linguistic input (i.e. EXPOSURE) in order to acquire a language; for most parents trying to raise bilingual children, the target language would be a minority language in their community, making it difficult to ensure sufficient exposure to the target language.

In our session, we shared some tips on how to create an immersive linguistic environment, and here are some examples that we discussed:

· Foreign travel: Needless to say, spending time in the country where your target language is spoken as the primary language is the best way to get immersed in a language! One of the Italian mums told us how her child’s English improved vastly during an extended stay in England, as the child wanted to be able to play with other English-speaking kids. However, not every family is able to go on a trip like this for financial and other reasons. But depending on your target language, other options may also be available. For example, for parents trying to raise their kids to speak English as an additional language, even a trip to a Mediterranean holiday resort with an English-speaking kids’ club could the child an opportunity to practise speaking English with the staff and kids from other countries! When we were in Turkey last year, the kids’ club at our hotel was actually run by Russian-speaking staff, which gave our kids the opportunity to interact with the staff and other kids in Russian thousands of miles away from Russia itself (well, we all know why Russia may be off-limit to visitors right now)!

· Au pair/ childminder/ nanny: This is another option that came up a lot in our session. Naturally, an au pair or nanny who speaks your target language would be invaluable in helping your child acquire the language, as they offer plenty of getting one-to-one interaction in the language. One-to-one communication with a real human being is still, hands down, the best way for both children and adults to acquire a language, trumping television, iPads or any other new-fangled technology (ChatGPT, anyone?). If costs are an issue, why not consider nanny-sharing with another family trying to raise bilingual kids in your target language?

· Online lessons: This also relates to takeaway number one – online lessons can be a great way to increase your child’s exposure to the target language as spoken by native speakers, and to increase overall exposure. Of course, offline lessons given by native speakers would be just as good (if not better!), but online lessons are often much more cost-effective and accessible to many parents. My children, for example, have weekly online lessons with a native Chinese teacher through an online school called Wukong (note: I am NOT affiliated with this company in any way). Each 30-minute lesson costs approximately £10, which is not super cheap, but still significantly cheaper than an in-person teacher. And when it comes to language learning, frequent practice is always better than less frequent practice, which means that two cheaper sessions per week would probably be more beneficial than one expensive session per week. And the convenience of not having to leave your house may also be important to parents too.

Takeaway Number Three: Tailor Your Strategy to Your Child’s Age, Temperament and Level of Exposure to the Target Language

During the session, one mum specifically asked me about the “Bootcamp Method”, which I explain in detail in my book. In a nutshell, this method aims at activating a child’s ability to speak the target language and involves asking the child to repeat a sentence in the target language every time they say something in English (or, in these parents’ case, Italian). This mum told me that she actually tried to implement this method with her four-year-old daughter, whom she described as very strong-willed and “stubborn”. She only began speaking to her child in English four months ago and is somewhat concerned about using such a forceful approach, which she thinks might backfire.

I’m so glad that she shared her experience with us. It really drove home the importance of tailoring your strategy to your child’s specific circumstances, such as their age, temperature and level of exposure to the target language. I myself implemented the “Bootcamp Method” when my son was three; by that time, he had already been exposed to Mandarin on a more or less full-time basis for more than a year. He was still young enough to be quite “malleable” and had also had much more exposure to the target language than this Italian mum’s daughter has. (But in terms of temperament, I must add that my son was also extremely stubborn, even at that age!) This mum’s child has a very different set of circumstances – she’s already in nursery full-time; she is a year older than my son was when I introduced the Bootcamp technique; and she has only had four months of “part-time” exposure (the mum does not speak to her exclusively in English) to English.

Both Sara and I were of the opinion that she needs to give her daughter a bit more time to accumulate more input, and that a gentle approach is both appropriate and preferable at this stage. It’s really important to find the right balance between reinforcing the target language and the need to avoid putting the child off – the last thing you want is for them to feel like they “hate” the target language!

What’s really encouraging is that the mum told me that she did manage to get her daughter to say a sentence in English using the Bootcamp technique, which shows that the mechanics of the technique do work. With time, I am confident that her daughter will be able to speak English with some fluency. As with everything in life, there is no magic bullet – bilingual success is invariably the result of perseverance, consistency and dedication.

I hope you found today’s blog post helpful! Check out my book for more practical tips. Also, let me know if you think a Q&A session is something you would be interested in – if enough readers express an interest in something similar, I will certainly consider arranging one 👍


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